John Potter: Amores Pasados (ECM New Series 2441)

2441 X

John Potter
Amores Pasados

John Potter voice
Anna Maria Firman voice, Hardanger fiddle
Ariel Abramovich lute
Jacob Heringman lute
Recorded November 2014 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: July 17, 2015

In his liner note to Amores Pasados, former Hilliard Ensemble tenor John Potter puts forth the notion that perhaps the wall between popular song and so-called art song, which even just a century ago were one and the same, is an arbitrary one. Such is the contradiction behind his latest project, as inevitable as it is unusual. In a musical climate where singers shackled by marketing to particular genres branch out into others at their peril—a climate in which “world music” still rings like a derogatory term for non-professional, non-western curiosities—it may be difficult to conceive of a time when melodies we take for granted as part of the classical soundscape were once “popular,” belonging as much to the theatrical stage as to the troubadour’s lips. Contrary to the pop songs of the 20th century, by which the roles of lyricist and composer have all too often ridden divergent streams of commodity, songs once fell fully within the purview of laypeople at a time when notions of artistic integrity had yet to hammer a wedge between “professionals” and “amateurs.” This dynamic would now seem to have undergone a dramatic reversal via singing competition shows like The Voice, but even there the purpose is to produce the next generation of underdogs, whose underlying ambition is to buy into the professionalism they seek, often at the expense of at least one vital organ of their creative bodies. They must be the complete package: looking and acting the part into which they will be groomed if they are to succeed beyond the ephemeral glory that makes them visible. Amores Pasados, then, represents a rare—and all the more so for being successful—attempt to blur the lines between the old and the new, performing modern folksongs with an antique spirit and older songs afresh, along with more recent balladry by pop/rock legends John Paul Jones (bassist of Led Zeppelin), Tony Banks (keyboardist of Genesis), and Sting.

Amores portrait

The arrangements are Potter’s own, and find a choice companion in Swedish soprano Anna Maria Friman. Friman’s journey as part of the vocal ensemble Trio Mediaeval has since 2001 graced ECM with a series of eclectic recordings, all under the mentorship of Potter himself, and so their rapport is duly felt here. Joining them are lutenists Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman, making for a multi-national roster.

The album’s first three songs comprise its titular suite, featuring Spanish Golden Age poetry set to music by Jones. It begins with the full quartet in “Al son de los arroyuelos.” As Potter and Friman harmonize over interlocking lutes, it’s clear that a new age of song has begun. The haunting “No dormiá,” for its part, has what Potter calls an “Arvo Pärt-like sparseness” which “defies categorisation of any sort,” and indeed reminiscent of the Estonian composer is its organic evolution from single-note chants to polyphonic blossoming. These give depth to a droning horizon, brushing in trees, mountains, and setting sun. Should it fall under any generic label, let it be: haunting. “So ell encina” finishes the triptych with a relay of understated power between the two singers.

Much of the album is, however, clearly in the tradition of that most famous purveyor of Elizabethan love songs, John Dowland (1563-1626). And while his music is nowhere to be found here (leave that to Potter’s earlier Dowland Project, also well documented on ECM), Dowland looms large, especially in this album’s closer, “Bury me deep in the greenwood,” by Sting. Sting’s 25-year obsession with Dowland led him to take up the lute and to release the Dowland-centered Songs from the Labyrinth on Deutsche Grammophon in 2006. Although “Bury me deep” is commercial in origin, having originally been written for director Ridley Scott’s 2010 reboot Robin Hood, it best captures the spirit of its influences through an exquisite sensitivity of both melody and lyric, being the only of the modern songs herein in which both come from the same pen.

For context we are presented with three specimens by Dowland contemporary Thomas Campion (1567-1620). “Follow thy fair sun” and “The cypress curtain of the night” are both heard in their original versions, and again with new music by Banks. The former glide off the tongue of Friman (what a joy to hear her as a solo artist), whose shaping of imagery is as evocative as the verses themselves. “Oft have I sighed” completes the Campion tour with quintessential languishing. As for Banks’s “Follow” and “Cypress,” they express the balance of self-loathing and -resolution of the original lyrics through soulful composing. The second song, with its lilting changes and Potter’s melodious diction, is especially memorable for its arpeggios (recalling the Prelude of Bach’s first cello suite) and unexpected ending.

Also unexpected are the chord changes of two early 20th-century songs: “Sleep,” with words by John Fletcher (1579-1625) and music by Peter Warlock (1884-1930), and “Oh fair enough are sky and plain” with words by A. E. Housman (1859-1936) and music by E. J. Moeran (1894-1950). Both work seemingly within the Dowland frame, but color outside the lines like the roots of a tree that grows wherever it will. Moeran’s is the most surreal of the album, sprouting leaves in winter and dropping them in spring.

Two versions of “In nomine,” the lone surviving composition of one Picforth, beyond whose 16th-century flourishing hardly anything is known, regale with their circularity and Celtic knot structure. Each is something of a palate cleanser for the ear, a baptism by hearth after the rain along the way.

To the seasoned ear, the distinction between older and newer songs will be rather obvious. This does nothing to undermine the integrity of the project. If anything, it strengthens that integrity, because the goal here is not to disguise itself as the past by way of compositional pantomime, but to own up to the trends of the present while paying respects to what has informed it. Whichever direction it may ultimately choose in the listener’s mind, one can hardly walk away from Amores Pasados without feeling its communal heartbeat. And perhaps this is the album’s truest goal—namely, to invite all who wish to sing, regardless of elitist approval, to enjoy the gift of creation (and creating) together, yielding a unity of voices across all lines drawn.

(To hear samples of Amores Parados, click here.)

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